Video games take a lot of different artistic disciplines and make something cohesive. That might have been the most redundant statement I’ve ever said… In video games, you have developers, writers, artists, composers, sound designers, modelers, marketers and oh so many people who add artistic direction to the vision. Many times, these disciplines come together to create something amazing, but so many times does it feel that music is just added on top. I believe that the music of a game should encompass all that a game is, and that the game should also encompass all that the music is. The same could be said about the art and music, or art and game, or story and music, or any combination of disciplines! The game wouldn’t exist without the art, so likewise should the game not exist without music or purposeful lack of music.
Now I just sound pretentious…
Artistic disciplines have been combined for millennia, most notably through dance, drama, and music, but now have expanded to encompass all art forms within the last couple centuries. However, video games are an extremely new medium in the annuals of time. So often do you play a game that has good music, but has music that simply exists. While this music may be great, all too often does it fall back in our mind as we dismiss the soundtrack. But what about the great soundtracks? Why do we remember soundtracks that are deemed incredible? I’m of the belief that we remember these because they present music as being equal to everything else in the game. It’s almost like the music is so present that it’s fighting the art, sound, story and the game itself, while also working together with them to make a better product.
So how do we achieve these seemingly effortless mergers of the arts like you see in Super Mario Galaxy, Nier Automata and Persona 5? There’s many ways to do this, but I think most people’s gut response would be through trial and error. Don’t get me wrong, trial and error are part of it. But I think there’s something more. Something less obvious. You can understand art without actually understanding it. In cases like this, if we look on the surface we’re already dooming ourselves to the same monotony that so many other games fall into musically. I think the answer lies in understanding each other.
As composers, we have an idea of where we want music to fall in the spectrum of a project, but developers also have an idea about this. We need to understand the visions of developers, and where our music falls in a creation mindset within the world we’re creating. However, this is pretty obvious. We’re hired to help bring a vision to life. The key to a breakthrough is that developers also need to understand the vision of the composer. Composers have an idea of how a game is going to sound, and there needs to be a supportive back and forth between dev and composer, between dev and artist, and even between composer and artist. Everyone needs to have the same vision.
There’s an incredible GDC talk from Mick Gordon, the composer of the 2016 reboot of Doom that describes this relationship much better than I ever could.
To summarize it briefly, Gordon was presented with a very clear, but impossible vision. The vision was so clear that he realized he needed to approach the entire project from a different angle. When he originally thought he found the answer, he was told that his unique idea wasn’t good enough, but that he was on the right track and to keep trying. This instantly validated the work, the person, and the vision while also allowing the developers to say that this wasn’t what they had in mind. He went back to the drawing board and found the answer to the “Doom Instrument” that is heavily featured in the game. In turn, the sound team said they didn’t want guitars in the soundtrack. Slowly Gordon began to implement guitars into the soundtrack, telling them, “Guys this is Doom. You need guitars.” He also had a vision of what the soundtrack needed to sound like. This is a perfect example of composer, developer, and the sound team working together to create something that was truly fitting. The soundtrack to Doom 2016 was one of the most appropriate soundtracks in recent memory, and it wasn’t only because it was metal as fuck. The different teams worked together, and continuously verified each other work. To make a cohesive game across the arts, taking the time to understand each other’s vision is absolutely imperative.
The visual arts tend to not struggle as much in communicating. Don’t get me wrong, it still happens all the time. But if you think about the amount of times an average person looks at something critically versus listens to something critically you’ll notice there’s a huge difference in frequency. If developers don’t like a model or a piece of art, they’re going to easily be able to say “Hey, I wasn’t really thinking that for the claw. I was thinking more of a tiger claw instead of a bear.” As humans, we pass visual criticism all the time, doing so somewhat accurately, even without a direct understanding of visual art. That’s because it’s normal to us. For music and sound though, not everyone is equipped with this skill set. Most people have preferences on music, and can tell if they like or don’t like a piece. But if a developer doesn’t like a track we write, it’s all too common to hear back “I don’t like this, I don’t know what it is, but something needs to change.” And as musicians we’re sitting here and are asking ourselves “Oh god. What did we do wrong? Was the melody bad? Maybe the harmony was repetitive? No that can’t be it, the harmony was pretty varied. Maybe the mix was unbalanced? Did they not like the use of trombone over a more traditional string melody?” And we have no idea what to fix or how to make our client happy. Often when I reply back to responses like this, I’m greeted with something like “I don’t really know how to describe it. It was a little low.”
“What was a little low? Was the bass too soft? Should the melody be higher? Do I need to put it in a higher key?” Our thoughts race again, until we ask:
“What do you mean by ‘a little low’?”
“I don’t know, you’re the composer.”
This is so counterproductive.
When talking with developers, I find it very beneficial to set up some key terms about music that make communication much more effective. These can vary from vocabulary terms, musical ideas, instruments, genres, or literally anything about music. I’ll generally try to establish different key terms depending on the project, because each one is different.
The situation presented above might have been prevented if we took the time to talk with the developers to find a mutual understanding about music. If we had done this, the first time they might have been able to say “Hey, I thought that the lowest bass instrument was pitched too low. Could you maybe bring that up a bit?” This is much easier for us as musicians to understand. By this we instantly know that that our lowest instrument was too low in pitch, and that we might need to bring it up an octave. Obviously, this still isn’t too specific for composers, but we now know what the problem is, and we can devise a plan to fix it.
And granted, sometimes I don’t have to do this! One thing I really liked, was about a month ago someone I’m working with told me “I’d really like it if we could begin to implement some leitmotif ideas into this track.”
Bam. That’s a winner right there.
But just imagine what would have happened if the developer didn’t know how to articulate this. I don’t want to think about it…
And this same kind of tactic can be employed with all types of disciplines within the game industry. The music should compliment all other forms of art in a game. When possible, I like to run the music by everyone in the team to get their opinions. There’s going to be one person who has the final say, but if everyone is aware of what you’re doing, I think it’s beneficial for the entire team.
I try to start writing music only after I see visual art for what it is I’m writing for, and a plot summary for the game or scene. I can’t do this at all times, but I feel that my music is much more appropriate when I’m able to do that. In turn, my music then can influence the art and gameplay.
Granted this is just what I prefer to do, everyone has a different process.
· Communicate your vision with everyone on the team
· Listen to everyone else’s take on the vision, but remember in the end it’s your project
· Validate the work of not only composers, but every creative discipline
· Provide pointed and directed feedback
· If you don’t understand how to articulate something, ask your creatives for advice
· Writing truly fitting music comes from sharing the same vision as the entire team
· Take the time to understand the vision of everyone, and also make your interpretation known
· Educate those who aren’t able to provide detailed feedback on music or sound
· Be flexible on the needs and wants of the team
What it all boils down to is understanding the vision of the team. Everyone will have opinions on what the project should look like, but to create truly immersive experiences that I would call complete packages, everyone needs to have the same or a similar vision. Communication and education is key for creating industry defining games.
Games are shared knowledge, and shared dreams. Make them that way.
We’re creators, let’s create something great.